Ava Chin, MOTT STREET: A Chinese American Family's Story of Exclusion and Homecoming

Ava Chin, MOTT STREET: A Chinese American Family's Story of Exclusion and Homecoming

Zibby speaks to award-winning writer Ava Chin about Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming, a gorgeously written, deeply researched, and intimate portrayal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and her family’s epic journey to lay down roots in America. Ava shares how this book came to be – from collecting family stories since she was a child, to traveling to Shanghai on a Fulbright to investigate her village, to putting piles and piles of notes into book form. She also talks about her job as a professor of creative writing, the pains of audiobook recording, and her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ava. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming. Congratulations.

Ava Chin: Thank you. It’s so nice to be here with you.

Zibby: It’s so nice to be here with you too. We were just talking about how you were a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library and got your pitch down by repeating it ad nauseam there. Let’s hear the product of all the practice. What is your book about?

Ava: The short version is, Mott Street is about the impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act laws on four generations of my family as we landed in the American West, then did a reverse migration across the country before finally landing in the same tenement apartment building in the heart of New York’s Chinatown on Mott Street. It’s a story about how I was trying to find out more about my family, but then how I discovered so much more.

Zibby: Unbelievable. Tell me about the Cullman Center. Was this your idea and then you went there and started digging? Give me the chronology of what happened here with this book.

Ava: In terms of my personal history with the book, there’s a short answer and a long answer.

Zibby: We have half an hour, so you do whatever. You can do the long version.

Ava: I’m going to tell you both. The short version is that from 2015, a series of events happened that made me realize that I needed to really start to research this book. For me, this book was that book that you always have rattling around in the back of your head, but you say to yourself, I can’t do that book. I lack the resources, the time, the language skills, access to people. People don’t want to talk to me. I had all of those critics in my head saying, no, you can’t do this. Then finally in 2015, all of these things conspired together. I realized, you know what, people aren’t getting any younger. We’re losing that generation in my family. I better start continuing to ask more questions now and do it in a formal way. From that time forward, I really made this my sole creative project. I was lucky enough to land a Fulbright Fellowship. I dragged my entire family, my husband and my daughter, out to Shanghai. We did research in our villages. Then I landed a fellowship at the New York Public Library, Schwarzman Building, the Cullman Fellowship. Then for that year, I was able to use the resources at the library and have that amazing amount of time to really focus on working on the work.

The long story really is the truer story, which is that I have been collecting these stories since I was a child. I grew up raised by a single mother. I did not know my father. We were estranged from each other. I didn’t meet him until I was twenty-seven years old. At the same time, the family who raised me told me stories about the fact that I was a descendent of a Chinese railroad worker who helped build the nation’s first transcontinental railroad that united the country from coast to coast after the Civil War. When I went to school and my teacher started telling us about the transcontinental railroad and how it benefited the country, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the railroad. Then I opened up the textbook. I saw the official photograph, and there wasn’t a single Chinese face in the photograph staring back at me. This was the official photograph put out by the railroad company. I just thought, what is this nonsense? What are they trying to tell us? Where are we in this photo? From that point forward, that was the moment that I realized I was a writer because I cared about these stories. I wanted to make sure that these stories were more adequately reflected in our literature and our general culture. Really, that is the real time in which I started researching the story. Later on, fast-forward, I’m a freelancer at The Village Voice newspaper. I start researching my estranged family members. I discover that there’s an oral history that my Chin grandfather left at a local museum down in Chinatown. I don’t get my hands on that oral history for another twenty-something years. This has been a long process of putting this book together. The fact that it is finally here out into the world, it gives me so much pleasure that it’s hard to contain myself sometimes when I’m talking about it.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Why did you not give up? There were so many times where you could’ve just been like, all right, that was fun. Onto the next.

Ava: I did give up for a really long time. It was a project that I always had on my backburner. I ended up doing other things that I thought were easier, like getting two master’s and a PhD.

Zibby: That’s a piece of cake. This is how you procrastinate.

Ava: Meeting my husband in my thirties, dating in New York seemed way easier. Giving birth to a baby without an epidural because I had this idea that I wanted to push her out, all of that seemed so much easier than writing this gigantic book. I knew that I needed to do it, but I just didn’t have the confidence to do it. In 2015, all of these things seemed to come together that made me realize that I needed to write this book. You want me to tell you what those things were?

Zibby: Yeah, I’m totally interested.

Ava: In 2015, I went into an exhibit at the New York Historical Society. The exhibit was about Chinese exclusion and inclusion. In that exhibit, there were all of these little clues that existed, like newspapers and photographs, that were related to my family members. I was like, this is really interesting. Chinese exclusion, I thought, maybe this is a frame to the story. Then the other thing that happened is I ended up writing about my maternal grandmother’s side of the family. They arrived here in the 1880s. They intermarried earlier. They had interracial marriages. There were white people who married into our family. They also ended up — I didn’t know this. I was writing about my family members. I posted it on this online Asian American women’s magazine. Then a writer from the Forward newspaper, the Jewish Lower East Side newspaper, reached out to me and said, “Ava, did you know that your family member ended up doing these big fundraisers in Chinatown lending a hand across the Lower East Side to their Jewish neighbors and ended up doing these fundraisers for Jewish pogrom victims in the early part of the twentieth century?”

All of those things together made me realize that there was more there than just collecting family stories and then telling them to other family members. My family was actually interconnected in all of these different ways in Chinatown. I found out once I met my father that he lived in a building on Mott Street that was the same building that the maternal side of my family who raised me were also born and raised. Then I later found out that the families were upstairs/downstairs neighbors from each other, kind of like The Honeymooners. I realized, also, that not only were they living here as friends, neighbors, went to the same churches, summered at the same places in the Jersey Shore, but they were all interconnected because they lived here under this period in time in which the Chinese Exclusion Act was hovering above all of them. I should probably mention what the Chinese Exclusion Act is.

Zibby: Go for it. This is the best interview I’ve ever done. I don’t even have to ask you anything. I love it. Thank you so much.

Ava: I’m sorry.

Zibby: No, I love it. Keep going. I’m just going to listen and learn.

Ava: The Chinese Exclusion Act was the country’s first major immigration restrictions. It was the first time our borders shut against any nationality. What it effectively did was that it halted legal Chinese immigration into this country and blocked a pathway towards our citizenship for over sixty years. It also set the tone for future immigration policies going forward so that by 1924, almost all Asians are banned from coming into the country. There were restrictions against Southern and Eastern Europeans as well. This had major impact on immigration. I can even make an argument that this is one of the legislations that helped further immigration restrictions down the line so that even Anne Frank’s family could not get into the United States. There’s a way in which so many of us are interconnected in ways that I don’t think most Americans are aware of.

Zibby: Wow, unbelievable. As you started discovering all these things, how did you even keep all this research organized? Did you have notebooks? How did you keep it organized? Then how did you figure out what to include in the book?

Ava: I can tell you that my writing studio and my home were a big, fat, giant mess. What you see behind me is wonderfully organized. In that period when I was working on the book, it was bananas in here. There were piles everywhere. It was actually kind of impossible. Here’s the other thing. The early part of doing the research was kind of easy because it was paper. I was taking notes. This was even before I owned a computer because it was when I was growing up and mock interviewing family members, collecting oral histories and stuff. I was so disorganized because I was a kid or I was a college student. I was putting these papers in folders. Luckily, I kept a lot of my folders. I was always keeping a journal ever since I was in grade school. Those journals really came in handy because I also write about meeting my father for the first time. I refer back to a lot of those journals. I had all of these folders and all of these notebooks. My place was a mess. I had to let myself be relaxed about that. As a woman and a mom, you always have to constantly deal with the tyranny of the household. I just decided, I was like, you know what, it’s either, I have a clean place, or I create this book for the world. I chose the world. If I showed what my place really looked like on Instagram, people would be like, oh, you’re a crazy person.

Anyway, I had all of those things. Then what happens later is we enter the era of the internet and internet research. A lot of my things became scans. Then I had to figure out how to adequately put them all in the right place in my computer. I felt like I was constantly losing things. The only good thing about all of this is that it kind of allowed me to be very open to — these are things I don’t talk about a lot because I am a professor at CUNY. It allowed me to be open to these very interesting messages. I’ll call them messages, little breadcrumbs that were left that I felt like were from my ancestors and from the grandparents that I was estranged from who died before I got to meet them. There were these little breadcrumbs that were left behind. I was picking them up. I feel like they led me to the story. Sometimes I would open up a file or I would open up my grandmother’s photo albums. My grandmother has long since passed. I write about her in the book. I open up her photo albums, and I would find notes that I had taken when I was at college in the photo album or in the file, things that I didn’t remember that I had written but that I had done over the course of many years when they were still alive. All I can say is I thank young college-aged Ava Chin all the time.

Zibby: This just goes to show you never waste any time. When you’re interested in something, it will all help you in the long run. I feel like all these deep dives into things — sometimes I stay up late, and I’m like, I don’t even know why I’m learning about this or that or whatever. Then somehow, a year or two later, I’m like, oh, actually, I know all about that because I had this one random night. It’s never for nothing. When you feel that instinct to dive deeper and deeper, it’s never a waste, right?

Ava: That’s right. I feel like it’s all interconnected. You want to talk about reading? I’m a professor of creative writing. I talk to my students about this all the time. When they graduate, they’re like, how do I continue to have this writing life? Sometimes it’s not possible to write when you have a lot of work at your day job. What I tell them is one of the things I did when I went through a five-year period where I wasn’t — I was writing journalism, but I wasn’t writing long, sustained narratives the way I wanted to. The best thing to do in those periods are, if you’re reading really great literature, literature by people from different perspectives and you’re learning about the world in a different way than you had seen it before, these are things that actually change your writing voice. You’ll find that when you go back to the page again and start working on your work that your voice has actually been strengthened by all of the reading that you’ve done.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. As a professor of creative writing, when you turn to your own work, how do you get through it without editing yourself as you go? How do you stay out of your own way?

Ava: It’s really hard. What I realized really soon into this is that a lot of the feelings that I was feeling when I was going through this research — a lot of the research that I had to deal with, the archives I had to deal with were really thorny. They were nineteenth-century newspapers that had a very popular discriminatory viewpoint that was popular for the day. I had to practice reading against the grain when I was dealing with a lot of these archives. What I realized is that all of the things that I was feeling needed to be noted down because they were important. They also were a way for the reader to connect through my feelings to connect to the story of these characters, these family members that I really cared about. I think that understanding where I was in the writing process and the researching process was one of the key things to actually being able to write this epic saga of my family as they try to lay down roots in America. That whole adage of “know thyself” really was incredibly important for me.

Zibby: Wow. Now that you have finished this colossal project that has taken up a lot of your adult life, where do you go from here?

Ava: The book just came out recently. It’s been getting really, really great press, so I’m very happy. There’s still a lot of events to do, at the 92nd Street Y in the fall, in different universities. When I was working on this book, this weird, miraculous thing happened. I was in the middle of writing the book. At some point, I felt like my book gave birth to a baby. I was like, oh, my god, there is another three hundred pages in here. I thought, no, I can’t do that to the reader. I’m already at three hundred pages. It’s time to stop. This other narrative, which is more the narrative of the decades about the impact of exclusion on my parents — my mother was Miss Chinatown when she met my father, who was an aspiring politician who wanted to represent Chinatown in state assembly — and the disaster that unfolded that was their relationship and the way in which they were impacted by Chinese exclusion, there is that idea of that book right behind this one.

Zibby: The baby book.

Ava: The baby book, but we need to talk about this book, the mama book.

Zibby: I know. You’ve gotten such great press and reviews everywhere. How does that feel to you?

Ava: It feels great. It feels great because it means that other people know about the book. What’s most important — this is for everybody, for any project that you do. It’s most important for me how I feel about the book. I love this book. I even loved narrating the audiobook. Very interesting. Have you ever —

Zibby: — I have. I have narrated four audiobooks.

Ava: So you know. It’s a marathon. After the first day or two, I likened it to giving birth without an epidural as being easier than narrating the audiobook. At least after you give birth, you have a baby. With this, it’s days and days and days. I had to do it for five days because the book is kind of extensive. By the end of it, I actually had a different relationship with my voice. I was the kind of person, I think like most people — they’re like, I don’t like the sound of my voice. I don’t like it when they play it back. You get very self-conscious. After the first day or two after listening to it, I was like, no, actually, I appreciate my voice. It gave me a better connection with myself and also with the book itself. You’re working on a book for a long time. It gets edited. You don’t actually, as the writer, really read the entire book through from start to finish. You’re dealing with different sections of the book. This is big. Narrating the audiobook, I was like, oh, I’m on this journey too like the reader. I really love my audiobook. I highly recommend it.

Zibby: Noted. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Ava: I think that particularly for writers who are working on family stories, the most important thing is to start doing those interviews now because people are not around forever. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re like, why didn’t I ask Grandma that question? She always told me that story, but I never really noted it down. Now I have other questions about it. I think that the sooner that you start, the better. The other thing I would say — this goes back to your question about, how do you get out of your own way? How do you stop those critics that are in your head? The one thing that I always remembered being nervous about — it’s the number-one thing that a lot of my students are worried about when they’re writing memoirs about their family. They’re worried, what is my family going to say when this comes out? I think the important thing is to remember that right now when you’re writing, that’s the time in which you’ve got to collect everything. You have to write it down. You’re not showing this to anybody. I always recommend not showing the working manuscript to any family members or any important people that you write about until the point in time in which you land a contract and you know that the book is coming out.

That’s different. Then you start talking about people because you have relationships with them. In the beginning when you’re working on the work, your job as the writer is to protect the writing, to create the best environment for the writing, for your flow possible. That is your sole job, not to take care of family members and their feelings. It’s very real. I’m a daughter. I was a granddaughter. I know all of those feelings. I was raised in a family that was like, do not air the dirty laundry. Sorry, Grandma. I did. The other tip I would say is that what was really important for me when I was talking to family members who did not want to talk to me — my father was very reticent about talking about a lot of this. I was very clear with myself and then with him that this story was much larger than him or I. The story was much larger than any individual family member. The story touches upon things that happened in our nation’s national past and affects us today. When my father realized that, it was a little bit easier for him to talk. That was incredibly helpful.

Zibby: Awesome. Ava, thank you so much. This is so interesting. So exciting about your book. Congratulations on this massive accomplishment. I can’t wait to watch you soar.

Ava: Thanks so much, Zibby. Thanks for having me on your podcast.

Zibby: Thanks for leading the way. This was the greatest half an hour of my day. Thank you.

Ava: Thank you.

Zibby: Take care.

Ava Chin, MOTT STREET: A Chinese American Family's Story of Exclusion and Homecoming

MOTT STREET: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming by Ava Chin

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